There’s significant furor over a photograph (found by Dan Twohig of MonsterMaritime) of an Ohio-class missile sub that shows the boat’s “stealth” propeller (designed to generate minimal noise and hence evade detection). The photo appears on Microsoft’s Live Local (run using Virtual Earth) service (a Google Earth competitor), though credit goes to Pictometry, which uses aerial (not satellite) photos. The US Navy seems OK with it, and China has noticed. I don’t know of a legal theory with which the Navy / government could press Microsoft to pull the photo, though India got Google to blur pix of key installations.
This is a nice example of an information law problem in an environment with very low information costs (at least end user costs). Google Earth and Live Local provide all sorts of neat information, but they’re like vacuums: they pick up desirable stuff and the (metaphorical) cat’s tail with equal ease. The standard moves here are to inveigh against a US company risking our national security during a war on terror (um, is al-Qaeda building nuclear subs?) or to bemoan the inability to protect information in the age of the Internet and distributed computing.
But, as law and economics folks will tell you, sometimes we should expand our focus and to see what other, possibly cheaper fixes are available. If I don’t want someone photographing my cat, I can close my shades, or we can regulate the sale of telephoto lenses. Which is less expensive / intrusive? Is it better to compel Google and Microsoft to filter their content, or to ask drydocks to cover a sub’s private parts with a tarp?
I’m being somewhat facetious, but the problem is a recurring one: information becomes available via the Net and is embarrassing / naughty / potentially dangerous, and there are calls for regulation or for limits. But sometimes self-help is the best help of all…